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Awards & Honors: 2007 National Humanities Medalist

Roger Hertog

He is not a writer, a scholar, or a curator. Yet Roger Hertog, a retired sixty-six-year-old businessman, works to fund and otherwise support many a writer, scholar, and curator. He is a benefactor, one with an enormous appetite for ideas. Modesty, however, may be his stock in trade. “It’s not like I’m some great public intellectual,” he says.

He is chairman and part owner of the New York Sun, the first new daily newspaper to enter the fray of that city’s highly competitive market in a long time, chairman of the New-York Historical Society, a former chairman of the Manhattan Institute, a board member of the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York Philharmonic. He is on the board of Commentary magazine, and is a current board member of the American Enterprise Institute, where he has endowed a fellowship currently held by the eminent bioethicist Leon Kass. It is through these and other institutions, he says, like the Shalem Center, a think tank Hertog helped found in Israel, that he’s made his contribution to the humanities, practicing what he calls “strategic philanthropy.”

Hertog’s parents were Jews who fled Germany under Hitler. They both arrived, separately, in the United States in 1938. Hertog grew up in the Bronx. “Like most Jewish families, we had not one but two pictures of FDR in our house.” He satisfied his precocious interest in newspapers at a small public library near University Avenue.

As a teenager, his school-bred love of history turned his thoughts to questions inspired by his own family’s past. Why, for instance, didn’t he have grandparents?

He began by reading about Roosevelt, which led to reading about Churchill, which led to reading about Stalin and Hitler. Soon he was asking about the Western response to Nazism, giving rise to a lifelong preoccupation with Jewish issues. He says, “Growing up a German Jew you were really forced to ask yourself the deepest questions.”

Still, Hertog says, “there were two driving interests for me as a young man.” The first was to make enough money to live on his own. The other, he adds, was girls. He went to City College at night and worked during the day. His first job was at “a young aspiring company” called Oppenheimer and Company, which has grown into a major player in the financial world. His next job was at Sanford Bernstein. Bernstein, the company’s founder, whom Hertog calls a “very inspired, controversial, difficult, but enormously creative person,” became for him a model of how to live and contribute to one’s community and society at large.

Hertog first became interested in public debate as practiced by think tanks and journals of opinion in the sixties. He was an avid reader of two “small-circulation magazines that had a disproportionate impact” on American government and society: Commentary magazine, then edited by Norman Podhoretz, and The Public Interest, the recently defunct policy journal founded by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in 1965.

Reading an essay in The Public Interest, he says, was like reading a book, “but I didn’t have to read five hundred pages and there weren’t a billion footnotes.” The young financial analyst was slowly becoming a student of a different kind of market: the market of opinion.

Hertog says that on the one hand you have newspapers, which are ideas being sold at “retail.” The other extreme is books. “In between are think tanks and magazines.” It is no accident that Hertog is an important supporter of the Manhattan Institute and its signature publication, City Journal, which have been credited with inspiring many of the ideas that have transformed New York City in the last fifteen years.

Although his interests seem to range from politics to culture, “Jewish continuity,” he says, is the leitmotif running through all of his work.

The next big thing for Hertog, he says, is the American academy, which he’d like to see transformed by philanthropy. Hearing him joke about his private life, however, makes one think that Hertog might combine this interest in the academy with his interest in Jewish tradition by endowing a university chair in Jewish Humor. After mentioning that he’s been married for forty-two years, he lets fly an old-fashioned one-liner, “Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, and pigeons are the only ones who mate for life.”

By David Skinner